The Best Science Photos of 2017

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The Best Science Photos of 2017

Science is stunning

The year was full of exciting, jaw-dropping photos related to science. From adorable animals — like a 4-month-old gorilla and a pair of nuzzling orange-beaked puffins — to stunning pictures of our amazing planet, long-extinct creatures like the world’s largest shark, here are the science photos that stood out in 2017.

Plankton Light Up

Otherworldly blue light dances in Three Cliffs Bay near Swansea, Wales in a gorgeous image taken June 18. Landscape photographer Alyn Wallace captured this view under a star-spangled sky. The blue is created by bioluminescent plankton, which sparkle when disturbed by currents or splashes. [Shimmering Sea: Why a Beautiful Blue Glow Lit Up the Coast of Wales]

Cyclone Licks the Coast

Like a tentative cat, a July cyclone reaches out to taste the coast of Portugal in this satellite image released by NASA. A low-pressure system pulled coastal moisture from over the ocean toward the warm, dry atmosphere of the Iberian Peninsula. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured the swirling clouds. [Cyclone ‘Licks’ Portugal Coast in Gorgeous Space Image]

Deadly Beauty

“Blue Lasso,” by Matty Smith, won the 2017 Ocean Art Underwater Photo Competition’s “Best in Show” prize for its stark depiction of a Pacific man-of-war photographed against a night sky in New South Wales, Australia. Man-of-Wars are colonial animals made up of four separate types of polyps, which are all unique organisms of their own that function together as a single creature. [Dramatic Man-of-War Takes Top Ocean Art Photography Prize]

Teeth in the Deep

The ocean’s horrors come to life in this artist’s impression of a megalodon on the hunt. The largest shark that ever lived went extinct about 2.5 million years ago, and a study published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecologysuggested that the reason had to do with a lack of prey for these gigantic beasts. []

Puffin Love

A pair of orange-beaked puffins nuzzle in this moody black-and-white image. A study released in April found that orange-beaked puffins, which form long-term monogamous relationships, stick close together during their annual winter migrations, a strategy that probably allows them to coordinate their return to the breeding colony in Wales each spring. [Puffin Couples Stay Close During ‘Winter Break’]
A pyrocumulus cloud created by the Thomas Fire looms over Santa Barbara.

Credit: Greg Vitalich

On Sunday (Dec.10), a massive gray cloud formed over Southern California’s Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, filling the sky with dark towers of smoke and shocking onlookers for miles around. The ominous cloud looked like an ash column from a volcanic eruption, but the culprit was a wildfire.

The cloud, created by the ongoing Thomas Fire that has scorched more than 230,500 acres (93,280 hectares) of Southern California, is an example of a pyrocumulus cloud — literally, a puffy cumulus cloud formed by the hot air and smoke released into the sky during wildfires and volcanic eruptions. [Wildfires Blaze in Northern California (Photos)]

“Pyrocumulus clouds form when wildfires burn hot enough to generate very strong upward motion, which we call updrafts,” said Nick Nauslar, a research scientist for the Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteorological Studies/Storm Prediction Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

These clouds tend to be gray, brown or black because of the smoke in the air, and can tower up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) high, according to NASA. But besides being terrifying, pyrocumulus clouds can develop dangerous weather systems of their own, and potentially lead to more and harder-to-tame wildfires, Nauslar told Live Science.

Walking Polymer

A ‘walking’ polymer inches like a caterpillar in a time-lapse image released in June. This polymer is made of light-activated materials and inches along when exposed to a light source. It can even carry small objects (small grains of sand) or push items larger than itself uphill. [Light Makes New Material Creep Like a Caterpillar]
Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second

Robber Fly

What big eyes you have! This robber fly is a mere 6 millimeters in length, but its huge, faceted eyes give it some of the best vision among insects, researchers reported in March. Using their keen eyesight, the flies can capture prey as far as 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) away. [Jaw-Dropping Vision Helps Tiny Flies Snag Prey in Under a Second]
Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation

Water Droplet Wasp

A wasp seems to play ball with a water droplet in this macro image released in October. What the insect is actually doing is sucking up excess water from its nest and flicking it away. [Incredible Image of Bubble-Blowing Wasp Has a Scientific Explanation]
Satellite images showed significant damage to Palmyra’s Tetrapylon and Roman theater in January 2017.

Credit: ASOR and DigitalGlobe

A month after retaking control of Palmyra, the Islamic State group (also called ISIS or Daesh) has allegedly committed new destruction and executions in the ancient Syrian city.

Two of Palmyra’s iconic monuments, the Tetrapylon and the Roman theater, have experienced  “significant damage,” according to the Cultural Heritage Initiatives (CHI) of the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR), which obtained new satellite images of the site from DigitalGlobe.

Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights alleges that ISIS is again using the archaeological site for mass executions, killing a group of 12 prisoners on Jan. 19. [See Photos of the Destruction to the Tetrapylon and Theater in Palmyra]

“One might interpret these destructions and the recent executions of prisoners, including civilians, at Palmyra as designed by Daesh to develop propaganda,” said Michael Danti, a Boston University archaeologist and academic director of ASOR CHI. “We are braced for a possible release of video footage by Daesh.”

The new reports are reminiscent of the Islamic State group’s previous occupation of the site, from May 2015 to March 2016. During that period, ISIS militants executed prisoners in the Roman theater and hung the body of archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s longtime head of antiquities, from a column at the site. The group also blew up Palmyra’s Arch of Triumph and destroyed several other monuments, statues and funerary towers at the UNESCO World Heritage site.

“This destruction is a new war crime and an immense loss for the Syrian people and for humanity,” UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova said in a statement. “This new blow against cultural heritage, just a few hours after UNESCO received reports about mass executions in the theater, shows that cultural cleansing led by violent extremists is seeking to destroy both human lives and historical monuments in order to deprive the Syrian people of its past and its future.”

Satellite images showed that this Roman monument called a tetrapylon in Palmyra has been badly damaged.

Credit: nikidel /

Danti told Live Science that ISIS has not been very active lately in staged or deliberate destructions of heritage sites as they battle to keep control of territory in Syria and Iraq. The group has, however, vandalized cultural sites and infrastructure as they withdraw or retreat from some areas, Danti said.

“For example, as they pulled out of the campus of Mosul University, they burned campus buildings,” Danti said. (In 2015, ISIS also released a video showing militants ransacking the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq.)

“It all adds up to a massive cultural heritage and educational crisis for Syria and Iraq that will require large-scale, concerted action from the international community as one part of a massive humanitarian relief program,” Danti added.

The latest damage to monuments at Palmyra took place sometime between Dec. 26, 2016, and Jan. 10, 2017, according to ASOR CHI. (TheSyrian Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums said that locals had informed them about the destruction at Palmyra at least a week ago.)

The Tetrapylon was built to make Palmyra’s main street look more harmonious, as it lies at a point where the route changes direction, according to ASOR CHI. This structure has four large platforms, each supporting four massive columns. The latest satellite images show that now just two columns remain standing, and debris is scattered around the structure. ASOR CHI says this monument seems to have been intentionally destroyed using explosives.

The satellite images also show that the Roman theater, which dates back to the second century A.D., has sustained damage to its stage backdrop and new stone debris appears to be scattered across the center of the stage.

Since war broke out in Syria in 2011, archaeologists have been turning to satellite data to monitor destruction and looting of the region’s heritage sites, which include prehistoric mounds, Roman outposts and the ruins of Assyrian, Persian and Akkadian empires.

Original article on Live Science.

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